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Law & Government

posted Dec 7, 2016, 2:18 PM by Paul McClintock   [ updated Dec 22, 2016, 7:37 PM ]

Jan 30, 2012 by Rousas John Rushdoony

This article is from Law and Liberty, Chapter 13, by Rousas John Rushdoony, a Reformed scholar and brilliant writer of the last century. Dr. Rushdoony was the founder of Chalcedon Foundation, an educational organization devoted to research, publishing, and to cogent communication of a distinctively Christian scholarship to the world at large. His son Mark continues to publicize and distribute Rushdoony’s work through Chalcedon. We are grateful to Chalcedon for permission to publish this book serially, chapter by chapter. Visit Chalcedon’s website here.

The Meaning of the Word Government

It is difficult nowadays to discuss government because the word government has radically changed its meaning. In my book, This Independent Republic, I pointed out that originally the word government was never applied in this country to the state. The world government meant, first of all, the self-government of the Christian man, the basic government in all history. Second, and very closely and almost inseparably linked with this, government meant the family. Every family is a government; it is man’s first church and first school, and also his first state. The government of the family by God’s appointed head, the man, is basic to society. Third, the church is a government, with laws and discipline. Fourth, the school is an important government in the life of a child. Fifth, business or vocations are an important area of government. Our work clearly governs us and we govern our work. Sixth, private associations, friendships, organizations, and the like act as a government over us, in that we submit to these social standards and we govern others by our social expectations. Seventh, the state is a form of government, and, originally, it was always called civil government in distinction from all these other forms of government.

But, tragically, today when we say government, we mean the state, the federal government, or some other form of civil government. And, more tragically, civil government today claims to be the government over man, not one government among many, but the one over-all government. Civil government claims jurisdiction over our private associations, our work or business, our schools and churches, our families, and over ourselves. The word government no longer means self-government primarily and essentially, it means the state.

But, originally, in our Christian American heritage, government did not mean the state. Some object that, while this was true in the colonial period, the picture changed after the War of Independence. The answer to that is to examine a textbook used in public high schools and in normal schools prior to World War I, Alex L. Peterman’s Elements of Civil Government. Peterman was principal and professor of civil government in the Normal School of the Kentucky State College and also a member of the Kentucky State Senate. Notice also that Peterman’s title speaks of civil government.

First, the Family

The preface stated, “This textbook begins ‘at home.’ The starting point is the family, the first form of government with which the child comes in contact.”[1]

According to Peterman, “The family … is a form of government, established for the good of the children themselves, and the first government that each of us must obey.”[2]

The first chapter of Peterman’s textbook was devoted to “The Family,” its purpose, members, rights, duties, officers, and responsibilities. It is interesting to see that Peterman wrote that “The office of a parent is a holy office, and requires wisdom for the proper discharge of its duties.”[3]

Five Areas of Civil Government

Peterman’s perspective on civil government was clearly one of a division of powers and federalism. He defined five areas of civil government: “the township or civil district, the village or the city, the county, the State, and the Untied States.”[4]

But, most important, as recently as World War I, civil government was a minor area of government in American life; now, civil government claims to be the overall government in man’s life. This claim is the essence of totalitarianism. From the self-government of the Christian man as the essence of government we have gone to the idea of the state as the totalitarian ruler over man.

Two Causes of the Shift: Subversion and Delinquency

When we raise the question, “How did this happen?” two answers are immediately available. First, we can say that we have been subverted by revolutionary and totalitarian groups, and, second, we can say that our own spiritual delinquency has led us into this sorry condition. Clearly, there is truth in the first answer. We have been the target of subversive activity in every area, and highly trained and skilled subversive agents have been at work in our midst for many years. However, there has never been a period in American history when subversives have not been active, nor has there ever been a civilization in all history without a challenge from hostile forces. The important fact to remember is that we will always be challenged by some kind of subversion; the real question is this: Do we have the spiritual health to resist the challenge? If we are spiritually and morally delinquent, we are easily subverted. In contrast to the millions of Americans, the subversive forces are numerically small, even if we estimate them in the millions. Our problem is not primarily what others are trying to do to us but what we have done to ourselves. The subversives are real and they are deadly, but they are helpless against a spiritually strong people.

Today, most Americans have lost their faith in Christ as Savior, and they expect civil government to be their savior. They have no desire for the responsibilities of self-government, and so they say to politicians, “Do thou rule over us.” Instead of Jesus Christ as their good shepherd, they elect politicians to be their shepherds on a program of socialistic security for all. Is it any wonder that we are subverted?

The First Pre-requisite of Free Civil Government

To have free civil government it is necessary first of all to have free men whose greatest desire is responsible self-government under God. Not many men are interested in this. A professor, who had left teaching soon after World War II, lectured to a group of students at a major Western university a few years ago on the decline of liberty. To his shock, one of the first questions asked by a student was simply this: “What’s so wonderful about liberty? What makes you think it is necessary for man?” For the students, security was a necessary social objective; liberty was not. Some years ago, Lin Yutang reported that, before he came to the United States, he thought of America in terms of Patrick Henry’s words, “Give me liberty or give me death.” When he came here, he found that the modern American creed seems to be “Give me security or give me death.” It is because we are refusing to govern ourselves under God and by God’s grace and word that we are being governed by the state. As William Penn and Benjamin Franklin long ago noted, men will either be governed by God, or they will be governed by tyrants. Americans are being subverted, and they have themselves to blame most of all for it.

Our breakdown is secondarily political; it is primarily spiritual. Our subversion is secondarily political; it is primarily spiritual.

The Government of God: The Basic Government, the Basic Essential

The basic government of the universe and of man is the government of God. Every person, family, institution, vocation, school, church, or state which is in rebellion against God’s government or bypasses His word and law is thereby in rebellion against its own health, against its own life. According to St. Paul, the law of God was ordained to life, or, as the Berkeley version translated it, the law “aimed to give life” (Rom. 7:10), but man’s sin has made it a death sentence. Jesus Christ, speaking as Wisdom, said long ago, “He that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36).

Wherever any government departs from God and His law it departs from health and ultimately from life. The government of God is basic to self-government, to the family, church, school, society, vocations, and to the state. It would be ridiculous for man to plan a life and a future in which air is abolished, because, obviously, man needs the air to breathe, to survive, to live; his life depends on it. Even more fundamentally, man’s life depends on the government of God; it is the essential for life in every sphere of existence.

No True Freedom Apart From Jesus Christ

Self-government presupposes freedom, and there can be no true freedom for man apart from Jesus Christ. Christ is our principle of liberty, the source and power of man’s deliverance from the slavery of sin and the penalty of death. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). “[Y]e shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). This is the foundation of liberty and of true self-government. Apart from this foundation, Jesus Christ, our destiny is tyranny and slavery. In Jesus Christ alone is our liberty assured and true government possible.

[1] Alex L. Peterman, Elements of Civil Government (New York: American Book Company, 1891, 1903), 5.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid., 18.